Obituary: Laurence Gandar

LAURENCE GANDAR transformed the press in South Africa and in doing so also profoundly influenced the country's political future. He achieved this as editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg from 1957 to 1969: he shaped the newspaper as the flag-bearer of liberal opposition to apartheid and it went on performing this role until it was closed down 13 years ago.

There was little in Gandar's background to suggest that he would be the implacable foe of apartheid that he proved to be. Born in Durban, Natal, the heartland of conservative English-speaking whites, he went to school there, studied for a Bachelor of Arts at the university there, represented the province in hurdles and the long jump, started working as a journalist on a local newspaper and married a local schoolteacher, Isobel Ballance.

His life broadened with the Second World War: South Africa declared war against Germany and raised a volunteer army. Gandar enlisted and, starting as a corporal, rose to the rank of captain; he was Brigade Intelligence Officer with the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy. At the war's end Charles de Gaulle was in military command in France and there was acute Allied suspicion about his intentions on the Italian border. One of Gandar's last intelligence missions - his memory of it a tiny footnote on that period - was to go to the border area every week and, even though he did not speak Italian, spend time in a bar drinking wine with an Italian contact to find out what the French were up to.

Returned home, he steadily ascended the promotion ladder to assistant editor in the Argus Company, the country's leading newspaper corporation; he also spent a year in Britain on a Kemsley Empire Journalist Scholarship. Then he broke away from newspapers, stepping deeper into the English-speaking establishment to edit Optima, the classy journal of the Anglo American Corporation, South Africa's most powerful business force and also owner of nearly all the English newspapers.

With this background there was every reason to expect that when, in October 1957, he was appointed Editor of the Rand Daily Mail he would fit easily into the newspaper's traditional mould since its founding in 1902 - a reputation of fighting for the underdog, if, that is, the underdog was white. Even with the racial qualification it was a contradictory reputation because in fact the newspaper, as Gandar was later to note, was "very Rand Clubbish and Chamber of Mineish", referring to the twin institutions in Johannesburg where the English-speaking white male elite and wielded their domination of the economy.

The Afrikaner Nationalists had come to power nine years before and were in the midst of ramming their racial apartheid laws through the all-white parliament while gradually choking off dissent. The Rand Daily Mail, like the country's other English-language newspapers, supported the opposition United Party and denounced apartheid; but the outlook was based in the main on rejection of Afrikaners rather than any great belief in securing rights for blacks.

Gandar began without any specific aims except that he wanted a better newspaper. He set about upgrading editorial quality, shuffling staff and seeking new talented journalists. He also began to express his anger about the sterility of the parliamentary opposition to apartheid in editorials and in political commentaries written under the pseudonym "Owen Vine", his middle two names. The effects were electric. His cool, clear analyses cut through to the heart of the failure of whites to come to terms with the fact of a black majority.

South Africa was a nation that had "lost its way", he wrote. "There are two choices and only two. There is racial separation, with massive economic sacrifices - or there is economic integration, with far-reaching political concessions." And, as he went on to argue with devastating logic, economic integration and all that it implied for a racially mixed society was the only viable option.

There were already some white liberal voices in the country but this new strong voice came from inside the mainstream press with all its links - and inherent obligations - to the mining industry. The United Party complained bitterly, to the Rand Daily Mail's management and owners. The criticisms were regularly conveyed to Gandar. He ignored them.

He backed the dissidents inside the United Party who were pressing for greater liberalism and supported their breakaway, out of which emerged the Progressive Party and the eventual disappearance of the United Party. At the next whites-only election the "Progs" were wiped out, except for Helen Suzman, who spent the next 13 years as the only MP of her party. Much of what she achieved in that time was made possible by the space and backing which Gandar and the Mail gave her, with other English-language newspapers gradually failing into line.

He encouraged entirely new reporting, giving attention as a matter of everyday course to black politics and black living conditions. These had previously barely featured in the "white" press. Now, in an era when black resistance to white rule was on the boil, the Rand Daily Mail broke ground in reporting and explaining the turbulence. He also opened the way to aggressive investigations of apartheid evils, such as widespread malnutrition among blacks and the sinister prosecution and jailing of black activists in the Eastern Cape.

Gandar was reviled by the government, its newspapers and radio, but he was a hero to countless South Africans. He gripped their minds and stirred their imaginations by pointing to a future of hope, beyond the cruelty of apartheid with ringing declarations:

We must lose ourselves as members of different race groups in the larger unity of a common humanity. Impracticable? Unrealistic? Unmindful of experience in other parts of Africa? Maybe. The truth is that most of the great evolutionary processes of human history started off in the face of precisely such obstacles as these.

By present-day standards it hardly seems a revolutionary message. In South Africa of the early 1960s it was both far-sighted and brave. His view of the South-Africa-that-could-be was carried down the years through the Rand Daily Mail, the journalists whom he nurtured and those members of the public whom he inspired. Vindication finally came with the new South Africa.

As a young reporter I developed the "black affairs" beat and hence rapidly created a relationship with Laurie Gandar. Out of this came a series of reports which I wrote in 1965 exposing appalling conditions in prisons. Gandar published and the government went for us, claiming the reports were untrue. Over the next four years there were prosecutions of each informant and then us. Perjured evidence was flung wholesale and to no one's surprise we were found guilty; an unknown admirer promptly paid Gandar's fine.

Gandar was honoured abroad, including a gold medal from the British Institute of Journalists and a freedom award for the Mail from the American Newspaper Publishers Association. When an amalgamation of The Times and Guardian was under consideration in the mid-1960s, his name was suggested in London (without his knowing) for the editorship.

To Gandar's critics, the prolonged and bitter conflict with the government had been the opportunity to close in on him. They were fuelled by the decline in the Rand Daily Mail's fortunes: for even as he transformed it into a fighting newspaper he shed white readers. As circulation plummeted, Gandar shrugged it off as the price to be paid for going ahead of the public. The board of directors fired him - but had to back off when faced by a threatened walk-out by senior editorial staff. Gandar was made editor-in-chief in charge of policy and editorials and Raymond Louw, a tough newsman, became editor (and would, in due course, also be fired after taking the newspaper to its highest-ever circulation).

The arrangement worked well and the Rand Daily Mail blossomed. But as the Prisons Trial finally ended the pressures were again on Gandar. The board fired him, and this time made it stick. Gandar went to Britain as the first director of the Minority Rights Group, set up to investigate and publicise the plight of ill-treated minorities around the world. He returned to South Africa three years later much disillusioned. He said he had reached the conclusion that, at any one time, half the world was being perfectly horrible to the other half; the proportion remained the same, only the victims changed. He retired to the Natal South Coast, applying the considerable skills he had developed in stock market dealings and playing golf as much as he could.

The remoteness, almost coldness, which Gandar showed to the world masked his shyness and diffidence. To his friends he was warm and generous, with a dry, clever sense of humour. Although I was close to him - if nothing else, sharing the dock in our criminal trial for eight months had cemented our friendship - it took many years for me to pluck up courage to ask him in a letter if he had ever regretted publishing my reports on prisons. He wrote back that, had he been able to anticipate the extreme measures which the government would take to destroy us, and if he could have known in advance how much pain and trauma publication would cost him, he would not have published; but, having indeed published, he had no regrets.

His wife Isobel's death in 1989 left him bereft. His last years were plagued by illness and he repeatedly said that he had no desire to go on living. In 1991 he told me that he was excited by events - the approaching end of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the birth of a grandson. He wanted to be around for another three years, he said, to see what happened. He exceeded his wish.

Laurence Owen Vine Gandar, journalist: born Durban, South Africa 28 January 1915; Editor, Rand Daily Mail 1957-69; married 1944 Isobel Ballance (died 1989; one son deceased); died Pietermaritzburg, South Africa 15 November 1998.